"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Monday, October 17, 2011

Looking for an 80's Nostalgia Geek Fix?

Like, gag me with a spoon. Ready Player One will do the trick.

It's a high concept story. A reclusive computer genius invents a virtual reality system called OASIS that changes the world, and with his death, it's announced that his billions of dollars and control of the OASIS system will be awarded to the person who can solve an elaborate puzzle he constructed using the whole system. A young lad who dubs himself Parzival sets out to solve it and change his life. So begins the adventure.

The hook for me is that the genius named Halliday came of age in the 1980's and his OASIS game can only be solved by someone with an acute knowledge of 80's pop culture and trivia. So the whole world becomes obsessed with the 80's and kids like Parzival dedicate their lives to learning everything they can about the decade. This leads to Family Ties viewing marathons, Pac-Man perfect scores, and not-so-friendly arguments about the merits of the film Ladyhawke and it's attendant synthoid Alan Parsons Project soundtrack (which does nothing for its fantasy setting, by the way; it's a classic victim of the popularization of  new wave synth music, which happened to Dune and Scarface among others).

The book's author, Ernest Cline, is clearly steeped in 80's knowledge himself. He previously made the film Fanboys, about a group of nerds who are desperate to break into George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch. I never saw it, but it seems full of geeky goodness.

Marge Simpson says she struck a blow for women's rights.
It must have been the pose, or the eye shadow, or blush.
Ready Player One relies heavily on an understanding of gaming culture, which I'm not exactly a part of, but I'm well-read enough to follow what I've not experienced first-hand, and I did play all the classics as a kid. My family never owned a gaming system, but all my friends had the Atari, and later, the first Nintendo. I never played many games enough to get very good at them, but I did master Ms. Pac-Man. Knowing that Ms. Pac-Man was far superior than the original Pac-Man was just me demonstrating my progressive thinking, even as a budding teen.

How many hours did I spend
playing this dungeon? Well, it
finally paid off.
My point is that even if I wasn't 100% informed about the ancient video games mentioned in the book, I certainly was up on most of the rest of the pop culture references. I got a kick out of the first step in Halliday's puzzle, which is taken straight from a Dungeons and Dragons module called "The Tomb of Horrors." I played D&D with friends in fifth and sixth grade, and "The Tomb of Horrors" happens to be one of the only modules I ever bought.

I'm not trying to brag--yes, I am--but I recognized the majority of the allusions throughout the book, from the Mr. Tuttle reference to the movie Brazil, to the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster drink from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And it isn't an 80's reference so much as a current geek-trend gag, but one of the greatest, funniest parts of the story is that the users of the OASIS system have voted Corey Doctorow and Wil Wheton as President and VP of the OASIS universe for ten years running.

Ready Player One is not totally sweet. In fact, there's a huge exposition dump in the first fifty pages. And the characterization is a bit simplistic. And the plot could have done with an added twist or two. But the writing is swift enough to keep you humming along, and connecting with the references not only creates the nostalgia, but makes the book one of the most fun I've read in a long time.


  1. Sweet! Gonna have to add that one to my must read list.

    You know.... I played D&D before there even were modules to buy.


  2. Tomb of Horrors is a miserable module for players. If a Dungeon Master does his job correctly, you will be dead long before the end.

  3. It's crazy to me how my high-school era is so popular now. Who knew the 80's would have a such a come back? I'm so glad I kept my lacy Madonna gloves and Day-Glo earrings.

    If you ever watch the TV show "Psych" it's loaded with 80's references. My kids love that show, even though they have no idea what the guys are talking about. They even turn my iPod to my "oldies" play list and listen to The Cure, Duran Duran, and Tears for Fears.

  4. Sounds like an amusing little tome.

    I know who Wil Wheaton is, but not Corey Doctrow. I'm batted 50% here.

  5. @ darev: you couldn't buy D&D modules? What did you do? Just make it up as you went along? That can't be right...

    @ Michael: I remember not liking the Tomb. It was hard. I don't think I ever made it to the main bad guy lich without dying. Or cheating.

    @ Julie: I have watched Psych. It is funny. But I wonder how these characters who had to have been, like, five back then know all these references to cool stuff.

    @ Bryan: Corey Doctorow is a current SF writer, with stories about how technology might develop in the near future, perhaps best known for the novel Little Brother. Good stuff.

  6. You haven't seen Fanboys. I think I'm disappointed in you, Brent. Shawn Spencer also has a photograpic memory. He'd remember what he saw when he was five.

  7. I read another review of this book, but it didn't mention the 1980s spin. That would make it a more interesting read for me.

  8. @ Charlie: Yeah, Fanboys was on my radar for a minute or so a couple of years ago, then it was gone. Now it's back. I'll be watching it soon.

    Did Shawn Spencer have this memory when he was five? And did they have the technology back then to light up all of things he was supposed to remember? And did he put his finger to his temple and squint so that he'd focus better?

    @ Theresa: I don't know how you could write a valid review of this book and not mention the 80s stuff. It's pretty integral to the story. And it makes it better!

  9. They hadn't invented the modules yet, I guess. All we had were second generation mimeographed character sheets and a vague set of rules.

  10. Ms. Pac-Man really was better than Pac-Man, but they could have given her a better name: Pac-Woman, Mrs. Pac, Elanor.

    I've always liked the name Elanor.

  11. Mostly I miss the metabolism I had in the 80s.

  12. I think maybe it was Ms. Pac-Man's bow that struck the blow for women's rights.

    As an 80's child, I have to say that that book sounds awesome.

  13. @ darev: You were way ahead of the curve...or just especially nerdy. Do you dress up at the Renaissance Fair, too?

    @ Doug: It's have to be Ms. Elanor, because it was the "Ms." that set the bar for 80's feminism, but of course Ms. Elanor sounds too much like a daycare provider or something.

    @ dbs: The ol' 80's metabolism. Awesome.

  14. @ MJ: Ms. Pac-Man can kick ghost butt and remain well-coiffed. Womyn rule!